Newly returned from the 12th Sharjah Biennale, Pakistani artist and activist Lala Rukh came visiting the Zubaan office one hot, sunny day in June. Dressed in a Beatles’ t-shirt and denims with bangles jangling on both wrists, she walked in with a lively air and began telling us stories with her easy charm: stories that captivated us, had us spend the entire day listening to her. She talked to us about her art, her inspirations, and the heady days of activism in the ’80s as she walked us through her work – photographs, posters and paintings – giving us a visual sense of all that she has been part of, of history and of history-in-making…
As she narrated anecdote after anecdote, we began to get a sense of what life and oppression under Zia-ul-Haq’s regime was like, with its rhetoric of chaadar aur chaar diwari. We learnt about the beginnings of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) and how the women’s rights movement in Pakistan blossomed through intrepid acts of resistance, to counter the violence faced at the hands of repressive state arms and rampant censorship of all forms of art and media. From singing in arrest vans to the iconic chaadar burning, Lala Rukh shared her experiences with equal parts nostalgia for her days of activism and irreverence for the system.
Thoroughly inspired, we decided to interview her so that we could share with you stories of her life, her art and her work!
Dakshita: Was there ever a particular point when you realized that you wanted to work for women’s rights, and made that a conscious decision?
Lala: I had been reading a lot of the feminist literature that was coming out at the time, in the late ’70s — a lot of radical feminist literature was coming out. And actually that was very, very powerful. If you had been through something like that, it could give you a different sort of emotional upheaval. And then I became involved with the inception of the Lahore chapter of the Women’s Action Forum.
D: Was it a spontaneous decision to start WAF?
L: Yeah, it was. It was actually after General Zia-ul-Haq enforced the anti-women Hadood ordinance. You know that in ’77 General Zia-ul-Haq overthrew the Bhutto government in a coup and imposed martial law in Pakistan. As part of the process of Islamisation, he enforced the Hadood Ordinance in 1979, to establish a system of justice in accordance with Islam. The most controversial aspects of the ordinance were the Zina and Qazf, under which there was no distinction between adultery and rape. If a woman reported rape, she had to produce witnesses for the same. And not just any ordinary witness, it had to be four adult male witnesses or the woman would be punished by stoning or public whipping, for the crime of adultery.
Of course nobody really considered what the implications were until the first case took place. It was known as the Fahmida-Allah Bakhsh case. With this first case under the Hadood, we realized that this can be really dangerous, you know? A woman exercising autonomy becomes a crime against the state! And now women were actually the ones that would get picked up and sent to jail on the basis of confession. If you even went and reported rape, and you were unable to produce four male Muslim eye witnesses then you were in for adultery. So when the first case happened, in Karachi, about four or five women decided to get together and discuss what the hell was going on! And that is how it started.
D: Was this at the university? Were you studying together in Lahore?
L: No, no this was in Karachi, while I was teaching art at the Punjab University, in Lahore. And these were women who had been working as journalists, in theatre and so on. There was Najma Sadeque, Aban Marker and others. And two people from Lahore were there – Farida Shaheed and Farrukh Nigar Aziz – who then came back to Lahore and told us that some women from Karachi had decided to form uh, Women’s Action—I think Forum. And they called a big meeting of a lot of women and that’s when we decided that we would also start a Women’s Action Forum in Lahore, all on basis of that first case.
Shamini: What was the initial period like? As in, how did you know where to start, what to do, what to say?
L: Well you see, one of the things that the two women (Farida Shaheed and Farrukh Nigar Aziz) came back with, was a 13-point charter, very basic you know? Although it is still very much there, but we really didn’t have to say “Okay, now we’re going to do this or that,” because such events were taking place that it just galvanized more and more women.
First one, was the Pakistan Women’s Hockey team that was banned in 1981. So that got a lot of women very upset and more women came together. After that there was this, uh, Dr. Israar Ahmed, who was a mullah, who made statements like, all women should be sent home—pensioned off and sent home, women should not be seen on the streets, they should be covered and so on. Oh! And that they should not even answer the phones, because their voice could be enough provocation. I mean look at the power we have! (laughs) It was all quite ridiculous. And it angered all of us so we started a campaign (mostly through the press) against him and he was removed from the council of Islamic Ideology and his television programme was also removed — so we felt very powerful (laughs). And then almost immediately after that, we had our first National Convention when there were already three chapters. First Karachi, then Lahore and then Islamabad and a year later in, Peshawar. And so it was the 10th of October in ’81 that WAF started in Lahore.
S: So how did the older generation at the time — you parents, teachers — take to Zia-ul-Haq’s laws?
L: Nobody really agreed with them. I remember talking to the cleaning lady who would come to our house and told her that this is what he is saying, that your testimony alone will not be enough and she said, “How is that possible? Is he mad?!” So nobody was really in favour of all of his laws against women except of course the fundamentalists. And they’re still at it.
D: So then the majority chose to stay silent.
L: Yes, of course. I mean martial law is no joke, you know? Since Zia-ul-Haq came to power he banned all political parties, arrested all their leaders. There was no leadership to even start a movement. And he clamped down on a lot of liberties, so people were afraid. In fact he even publicly hanged two men — like a spectacle and it was all broadcast on television, live. So it immediately filled people with terror. But there were also quite a few people that had the courage to do things. Usne Bhutto (Z.A. Bhutto) ko arrest kara diya tha (He had had Bhutto arrested) and so Peoples Party (Pakistan Peoples Party/PPP) workers were coming out and a lot of them immolated themselves. But nothing really took off in a big way… these were isolated incidents here and there.
I think WAF was the only organization that was consolidated. We were very conscious of the fact that we didn’t have an office or a permanent space, we were just meeting here and there — in people’s homes and nobody could really catch us. So it was a very amorphous body. Anyone who came was a WAF member. But we were clear that we didn’t want any right wing elements to come in and take over. But because of the nature of the group there was a lot of difference in opinion, and especially with the chaadar burning (below), we got a lot of flak.
S: Why? What was the reaction?
L: Basically, they said “we don’t want people turning against us” and so on. I mean this kind of symbolism was very powerful, the burning of a chaadar and especially when the whole state’s vocabulary was ‘chadar aur chaar diwari’. And also people are conservative you know? You have all shades of opinion. But the funny thing was that I was sitting in one row and behind me were the other two women [from the protest] and they were wondering if we should confess because it was our little plot and I was like, “Shh! Chup kar ke sun lo (Shh! Let’s just listen quietly) Why should we confess?” (laughs)
Watch this space for more from the interview.